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TRANSGLOBAL SPECIAL REPORT. 3:58 P.M.


" the panic in the Midwest. Federal and local authorities this afternoon are struggling to maintain a semblance of control over a terrified population" Percival Lowell Utility Deck. 4:11 P.M.

Major Lee Cochran, in a white dress uniform, was waiting when Charlie stepped through the hatch. He snapped a salute. "Welcome aboard Percival Lowell, Mr. President." A full-throated version of "Hail to the Chief" roared out of the sound system. Charlie had to make a conscious effort not to show his dismay, but everything froze while the march went on, until he signaled that he was gratified and that it could be turned down or off. Someone reduced the volume. "I'm Major Cochran, sir," he snapped. "The captain asked me to present her regrets that she could not be here personally, but the situation requires her presence on the flight deck."

Charlie nodded and smiled. "Thanks, Lee," he said. He'd been introduced to both astronauts a week before on L1.

Cochran glowed at the use of his first name. "I didn't expect to see you again quite so soon," the president continued. They were standing in a small chamber lined with lockers and storage bins.

The others came through the airlock: Evelyn, who'd regained some of her imperious manner; Morley, talking into his microphone, his voice low; the chaplain, withdrawn and silent.

The major threw a disapproving glance in the journalist's direction, but said nothing. Saber brought up the rear, looking pleased to have responsibility shifted to other shoulders. Cochran peered through the connecting port. "Is that everybody?" he asked.

"Yes," said Saber.

He nodded, closed the hatch, and hit a couple of press-pads. Lowell rolled slightly and lamps changed color. "Everybody get hold of something," he said. He spoke into a commboard: "Rachel, pickup's complete. We're clear."

Charlie felt the ship change direction. "Mr. President," said Cochran, "you'll have the mission commander's quarters. If you and your" he paused, looking for the right word, "associates will follow me, please."

Lowell seemed smaller now to Charlie than it had during his L1 inspection. The passageways were narrow, the spaces jammed with equipment, the appointments utilitarian. The mission commander's quarters, which might have appeared cramped under other conditions, seemed almost spacious in comparison. The bunk was drawn up into the bulkhead. There was a chair and a desk with an overhead display. Drawers and closet space were built into the walls. Two towels, a comb, a cup, and a tube of toothpaste were secured to the chair. An extra-large Percival Lowell jumpsuit was laid out for him. It was complete with a mission insignia and a HASKELL label across the left breast pocket.

Cochran invited him to call if he needed anything, showed him how to use the intercom, and how to tie into ship's communications. "We have two-way visual from the flight deck, Mr. President, should you have need."

"Thanks," said Charlie.

He pointed to a pair of doors at the end of the passageway. "I'm afraid we don't have private bath facilities," he said. "Use either."

After Cochran withdrew, Charlie pushed his bag into a cabinet, picked up the jumpsuit, his electric razor, and a few toiletries, and made his way to the washrooms. One was occupied.

He opened the other and squeezed inside. He stood for a moment, contemplating the compartment, with its clumsy zero-g toilet and its ultrasonic scrubbers. When he'd looked at Lowell before, he'd wondered what would possess anyone to commit to live two or three years cooped up inside her claustrophobic spaces. His first thought had been that humans probably shouldn't go to Mars until they could go in style.

His second thought had been that TR would have disapproved roundly of such a notion. Still, the first President Roosevelt hadn't been put to the test. Charlie himself enjoyed living in the wilderness, as TR had. That wasn't at all the same as walling oneself up in the high-tech equivalent of a cheap hotel with no exit.

He stripped, pushed his used clothing into a plastic bag, and turned on the scrubber. His flesh tingled, although not the way it would have under a hot shower. The grime flaked away and he rubbed off the residue with one of the towels. When he'd finished, he was clean, but he didn't really feel clean. He would gladly, he decided, leave space flight to others.

His phone was chiming when he arrived back at his quarters. "Haskell."

It was Al. "It's confirmed. The Possum's going to hit Kansas."

"Okay." Charlie had expected no less.

"I'm sorry." Kerr paused, maybe feeling a need to change the subject. "I see you got on board Lowell. We've been following the whole thing. You're getting great press. What did you do, buy off this guy Morley?"

"He's doing a good job, isn't he? Rick'd be proud."

Charlie was trying to decide what to do about the Possum. He wished now he'd taken his chances with the nukes. Maybe they'd have knocked it onto a different course. He'd still have to try to blow it apart, but now it would be inbound.

"Feinberg wants to talk to you again," said Al.

"What's he saying?"

"He won't tell any of us."

"Okay. Get him for me. Make sure he's got a scrambler." Charlie disconnected and watched the walls close in. He was deathly afraid they'd spotted another rock. His stomach began to twist, and he thought about Henry during the early days of the crisis, responsible for all those lives, and then knowing before he died that he'd made the wrong call.

The phone chimed again. "Mr. President." Female voice. He'd expected to hear Kerr saying he was about to switch him to Feinberg. But this was Rachel Quinn.

"Yes, Captain?"

"Sir, two things. We grabbed some prepared meals from Skyport's galley before we launched. I'd like to invite you and the other passengers to join us at my table for dinner."

"I'd be delighted, Rachel."

Her voice softened, became less formal. "Is seven o'clock suitable, sir? Or would you rather eat earlier?"

"No, that's good."

"Also, we're going to be starting a long turn back toward home, so you'll be feeling the g-forces a little. It won't be severe. We're taking it easy. That means it'll go on for a couple of hours. If it presents a problem in any way, please let me know. We can make a wider turn if we have to, but it would take longer to get back to base if we do."

"I'm sure it'll be okay, Rachel."

"You should also be aware we have a doctor on board. He'd like to take a look at you. At your convenience. And it looks as if you're getting another call, sir." She paused, and Charlie told her to patch it through.

"Mr. President." Feinberg's voice was precise, tired, ominous. "How are you? I see you've had quite a ride."

"Tell me about the Possum," said Charlie.

"Kansas. Four fifty-six A.M., Tuesday."

All Charlie could think of was using the nukes. "Wesley, we can't just sit here and let that thing come down on our heads. Do you still dislike the missile option?"

"Very much. It would be better to do nothing."

"No. I will not sit by and do nothing. Give me an option."

"Actually," the scientist said, "I do have a suggestion. We can try to lift the Possum into a higher orbit. A more stable orbit, where we can deal with it at our leisure."

"How do we that? With bombs?"

"You have to stop thinking weapons, Mr. President. Get outside the box. Use the space planes."

Charlie tried to visualize it. What would they do? Get under and lift? "In what way?"

"The world currently has a fleet of ten SSTOs. If my math is right, seven of them, working in unison, should be adequate to accelerate the Possum and move it past the collision point before the Earth gets there."

"We can really do that?"

"We can do it. If the planes can be deployed in time, if they are properly distributed, and if we coordinate the operation properly."

Charlie began to breathe a little more easily. "Great," he said. "Thank God." It seemed too good to be true. "Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm not sure, Mr. President. At this point, very little's certain. There are too many intangibles. For one thing, we don't know enough about the Possum. For another, I'm not certain how much fuel your planes will have left when they reach the Possum. But I'm reasonably confident."

"Okay. I'll run it by our people."

"Time is of the essence, Mr. President. This is not one of those issues you can allow to get caught up in bureaucratic wrangling. If you're going to do it, I think you have to simply make the decision now and get started."

Charlie needed a minute to think. He wasn't accustomed to making major decisions without staff work. "All right," he said. "I'll put Orly Carpenter in touch with you. He can get things started. Anything else?"

"Yes. We need more information about the Possum. Somebody needs to go out forthwith and take a closer look. Take pictures. Land on it. Punch holes in it. We need to determine its mass and mass distribution very precisely. We need to locate places on the surface where we can anchor the planes. We need whatever data we can get.

"I suggest you use every available SSTO," continued Feinberg. "All ten, if you can get them. The more you have, the better our chances. But no less than seven, under any circumstances. We'll need a minimum of seventeen minutes' burn at full throttle by at least seven vehicles. Provided everything's in place on the POSIM by no later than four A.M."

"Okay, Wesley. Tell Orly Carpenter what you told me." He paused, thinking about options, deciding this was really all he had.

"Is something wrong, Mr. President?" asked Feinberg.

"I don't see an easy way to get a look at the Possum."

"That's simple. You're already out there."

Downtown Indianapolis. 4:27 P.M.

Harold K. Stratemeyer settled into the back of his limousine and let his head drift onto the cushions, wondering whether everything he'd struggled to build over the last few years was going to come crashing down. He was commissioner of the Lunar Transport Authority and a few days before he had seen no major obstacles whatever to a brilliant corporate future. Now, literally overnight, Moonbase International and Hampton were out of business, and he suspected the LTA and Stratemeyer were close behind.

Private enterprise was not quite ready to take over manned space flight without substantial government assistance. Enormous potential was lying out there, but they were still several years from being able to exploit it. Meantime, capital expenditures were astronomical. (He no longer grinned at his old joke.) And so was the need for confidence that the program would be seen to its conclusion. If governments withdrew their support now, there'd be a meltdown. LTA, Moonbase International, and several hundred other, smaller, corporations, were developing ever more sophisticated technology.

Stratemeyer had spent a long, gloomy day in hastily arranged conferences, trying to devise a strategy to keep the industry alive. But the consensus was that space travel was dead for the foreseeable future. The client governments could be expected to go into a survival mode and the industry could not hope to shoulder the burden alone. And what would be the condition of the world economy in another week? Some had argued that the products of the space age, even if they could be delivered, would no longer find a market.

His cell phone trilled. He looked at the display: incoming from Camp David. "Stratemeyer," he said.

A woman's voice on the other end: "Please stand by for the president of the United States." Stratemeyer felt his heart speed up a little. Despite all his years dealing with the men and women who controlled the direction and momentum of Western civilization, he'd actually spoken with a sitting president only once before. That had been Culpepper, when Stratemeyer had joined a group of other executives to push for White House support in space technology. He'd been younger then, more impressionable. It irritated him that he once again felt a rush of blood.

He heard a series of clicks and a change in tone. Then another voice: "You're connected, Mr. President."

"Mr. Stratemeyer?" He recognized Haskell's rolling tone, somewhat distant, relayed presumably from the Percival Lowell.

"Good afternoon, Mr. President. I'm happy to see you've been rescued."

"Thanks. We seem to be in good shape now." He paused. "Harold-it's okay if I call you 'Harold'?-You know the Possum's on its way back."

"I know, Mr. President." The whole world knows. "What's going to happen?"

"That's why I called. Harold, we need the space planes."

"The fleet? All of them?"

"Yes."

"Why?"

"We're going to try to steer, to lift, the Possum into a higher orbit."

The limousine swung north onto Arlington Avenue. Stratemeyer looked out at the broad manicured lawns of the Naval Avionics Center. Traffic was light; downtown had been deserted. Unusual for a Sunday afternoon. Indianapolis seemed somehow ghostly, as if its reality were slipping away. As if it were becoming part of the past.

"With my planes?" he asked.

"Harold, you're all that stands between the world and a major catastrophe."

"Mr. President, I think we've already had the catastrophe." He looked out at the empty streets. "Why don't you describe precisely what you intend to do?" He listened while Haskell explained the plan. They wanted to fly all the planes to Atlanta tonight, where they'd be fitted with devices that would allow them to anchor themselves to the Possum. Then they'd launch to Skyport, where they'd be refueled. By Tuesday morning they'd be in position to move the rock.

"It's a big rock," said Stratemeyer.

"I know."

"What kind of guarantee do I have that I'll get my planes and crews back?"

"Harold, we're sending ferries out to bring the crews back. We don't anticipate we'll be able to recover the planes immediately. They'll probably expend their fuel during the operation."

Which meant, reading between the lines, he'd lose the planes. Insurance would never pay for them. Not under these circumstances. "Mr. President, I'd really like to help, but I have shareholders to consider. As I'm sure you know, a substantial portion of the LTA's assets are tied up in the fleet. I can't just allow you to fly off with it."

"I understand, Harold. But the government will underwrite any losses."

Hell, the government was already broke. Where would the Treasury get the money to make good the losses he'd take? Who said the Possum was that big a deal, anyway? A lot of rocks had come down during the last eighteen hours and the planet was still here. Moreover, it was Charlie Haskell making the promise; and Haskell was just one more politician. Stratemeyer knew better than to trust him. Not with the fleet. Hell, the way things were going, the president would be damned lucky to get reelected.

Best to ride it out.

"I'm sorry, Mr. President. I don't have the authority to authorize this on my own. Wish I could. But I tell you what: I'll track down the board members. Get them to okay it. And I'll get back to you."

"When?"

"Soon as I can."



TRANSGLOBAL SPECIAL REPORT. 3:53 P.M. | The Moonfall | c